What is the future for victims’ groups here?

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By Barry McCaffrey

NORTHERN Ireland’s two largest support groups for survivors of the Troubles claim they are being ignored and sidelined by government in a bid to make the victims’ issue go away.

The disagreement has emerged in the advent of talks which are expected to determine how Northern Ireland deals with its legacy of the past.

But WAVE and Relatives for Justice (RFJ) claim that the government’s strategy is already being rolled out – and that it appears to involve removing control of victims’ issues from organisations which have been vocal in holding the state to account over legacy matters.

The approach being adopted, they say, can only re-traumatise the very people the services are supposed to be helping: victims.

The Victims & Support Service (VSS), which has been tasked by the government to oversee the treatment of those who have been bereaved and injured, say that all government funding for the victims’ sector must be properly accounted for and that every effort is being made to work with the groups involved.

Relatives for Justice (RFJ) and WAVE provide counselling and support to around 5,000 people who were bereaved or injured during the Troubles.

Collectively with more than 40 years of campaigning on behalf of victims RFJ and WAVE are regarded as being the two largest support groups in Northern Ireland.

In May Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness announced the establishment of an all-party working group to find solutions to the issues of flags, parades and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.

The treatment of survivors of the Troubles is expected to play a major part in those talks, which are being chaired by American diplomat Richard Haass and which are expected to get under way in September.

But can government really find a solution to the victims’ issue if the two main victims’ groups feel their concerns are being ignored?

“It’s certainly the case that government aren’t listening,” said RFJ director Mark Thompson.

“There is absolutely no doubt about that and it is concerning. We don’t know what the rationale is behind this.

“All we know is that there is a community/voluntary sector who has built up over two decades best practice (and) it’s being ignored.”

Despite RFJ and WAVE having supported thousands of people who have been bereaved or injured during the Troubles Mr Thompson says the two groups now feel that government is attempting to sideline their work in favour of alternative counselling being provided from the private sector.

“We are on the blind side of what the government strategy actually is around this, but there is a view out there, and I can’t substantiate this view, but it is a strongly held view and belief that the process is to eradicate community/voluntary groups in this sector and to move to a private and semi-private process.”

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A key part of the OFMDFM victims’ strategy was the establishment of the Victims and Survivors Service (VSS) to administer funding and support to people affected by the Troubles.

However a decision that people seeking support from VSS should now go through an assessment process has caused consternation among some victims’ groups.

WAVE and RFJ question why some of the victims, who they already provide counselling support to, have been redirected to other organisations for counselling after having gone through VSS assessment.

“There have been very few people who have went down to it (VSS assessment) who have been sent back to us,” explained WAVE director Alan McBride.

“They have been sent elsewhere and when you think about that you start to think, why have they not been sent back to us?

“I think that leads into the whole thinking for me, there does appear to be a lack of trust between the service and the groups. I’m not sure what that’s about, but at a level is something which probably needs to be addressed.”

Mr McBride says there is now a fear that a government decision has been taken to sideline victims’ groups.

“I don’t really want to get into conspiracy theories. You could take the line, as some people have, that groups are seen as trouble, because let’s face it, it’s the groups who are up in Stormont knocking on doors lobbying, trying to get things done.

“If there were no groups there wouldn’t be any of that. You could argue that it’s an attempt to control the sector. I’ve really no idea of any of that.”

Mr Thompson raised concerns that a counselling service which had been set up to provide support to members of the security forces, had been employed by the VSS to carry out assessments of civilian victims.

“People are talking about fundamental issues which irrevocably changed their lives,” he said.

“In many of those instances there is very sensitive, personal information, there’s very sensitive detail and I suppose in that sense if they’re going to provide it to an arm’s length body from government, which has an affiliation with former police officers, who are conducting the assessment, that presents fundamental problems.

“It creates a distrust and creates a disconnect.”

VSS director Ann Dorbie said it had been necessary at the start of the assessment process to use the counselling service, despite it having provided counselling to former members of the security forces but said this was no longer the case.

“We did engage with Futures NI, which is a subsidiary of the Police Rehabilitation Reform Trust (PRRT), and they were with us at the start in terms of advice and guidance and that’s because they are another arm of government so it was easy for us,” she said.

“They provide very, if not exactly, similar services that the service did. But increasingly when we opened up doors in April (2012) there were so many people saying ‘I don’t want to go to victims’ groups’… so we had to provide that service.

“It would have been wrong of the service not to be able to meet that need of people wanting go elsewhere, but that is not to suggest that at any stage that victims were being sent or directed to that organization.

“They were also given the choice about where they would like to go and some people did opt then to go to PRRT, as it’s known, and to other victims’ groups.”

Some victims’ groups express further concerns that people undergoing the VSS assessment feel their integrity is being questioned as they are obliged to provide bank statements to allow their financial accounts to be scrutinized.

Mr McBride says that some members of WAVE have found the assessment invasive and that some of the questions which are being asked are unnecessary.

“It’s quite a lengthy assessment and quite intrusive assessment. People would suggest that there are questions on there that they (VSS assessors) ask about that they have no brief or capacity to do anything about.

“They ask you about employment history, but they can’t go and get you a job. They ask about other things as well, benefits or whatever, and there’s nothing really they can do about that either.

“They ask you some questions which you may be better not asking, because there’s nothing you can do nothing about it.”

However Mrs Dorbie insists that it is necessary for the agency to ask victims about their financial history.

“That is the only change from the time that the (Memorial) Fund administered the scheme and that is really to ensure that we’re capturing all their income,” she said.

“It is means-tested so we need to ensure that when an individual provides evidence to us that we look for all the income that has put down on their form.

“Again it is government money and the checks and balances have got to be built into the system.

“We’re subject to all the governing measures within the public and audit.

“I don’t think that is unreasonable to ask people to provide evidence of income.”

Mr Thompson, meanwhile, says that there needs to be open and frank dialogue about the way in which government intends to deal with the victims’ issue in the future.

“It appears that government doesn’t want that (debate) to happen,” he said.

“They want to control of this, they want to know everything and they want to conduct the assessment.

“The assessment that is being conducted is about profiteering and privatisation of these services.”

The RFJ director claims that the victims’ policy being implemented by OFMDFM is fundamentally flawed.

“It’s not just me saying this, there are people with backgrounds in the international community, in dealing with trauma in conflict areas across the world and they are saying that fundamentally the policy being rolled out at the minute by government is going to aggravate, re-traumatise people.

“It will put underground the true extent of need, people won’t engage because of all of the issues of trust, safety, security and confidence and it will mask that extent of need and it will create many other social ills.

“I would appeal to them to (OFMDFM) re-examine this policy, work with us in a collaborative way and listen to the proposals that organisations like us are making.”

Mrs Dorbie, however, has rejected any suggestion that victims are being let down by the new system.

“I don’t feel that the service has failed, obviously not, but we are very happy and will continue to keep the door open in terms of negotiation and discussion around any issue that they (WAVE and RFJ) may have with the Victims and Survivors Service.

“Certainly I would encourage them to keep those channels of communication open.

“We’re very keen to talk to anybody and learn as best we possibly can.

“If there are areas we fall down on let us know and if it’s something the service can or should be doing better we’re very happy to put it right.

“But again think about the individuals, making sure they do get access. This is not about the service withdrawing services from those groups.”

Read full RFJ statement here

© The Detail 2013